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Sunday, June 26, 2022
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Madison Ald. David Ahrens, District 15, will run for a vacant Dane County Board of Supervisors seat after his term on the city council ends.  

Madison’s search for a homeless shelter, explained

Madison and Dane County officials have officially proposed a location for a new, permanent men's shelter; “a new day in Madison's approach to homeless services.”

A location for a new permanent men's shelter has officially been chosen, Dane County and Madison leaders announced on Wednesday. 

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi stated at a joint press conference that the shelter’s location would be 1902 Bartillon Dr., just off of Highway 51 and next to Reindahl Park on Madison's Far East Side.  

“Today, the city and the county embark on a serious and sustained effort to build a permanent, purpose-built shelter for men experiencing homelessness here in Madison,” the mayor proclaimed. 

The 2.1-acre location is the former site of Callahan's Sports Pub, which the city bought last October. The site was chosen for its access to amenities such as transportation, food outlets, job training/education opportunities and the proposed Imagination Center, said Community Development Director Jim O’Keefe. 

According to O’Keefe, the shelter will have spaces to help people experiencing physical or mental health issues, as well as resources addressing mental health or substance abuse, with some services on-site and connections to others in the area. 

“This is not intended to be a warehouse for homeless men but a resource to connect them to housing,” O’Keefe explained.

Rhodes-Conway echoed this, highlighting how the shelter would be designed and built for the people it would serve

“We are purposely building a shelter to give people a place to go and to connect to services and to connect to permanent housing, so we get to start from the ground up to think about what this population needs and how to design that into the building,” Rhodes-Conway said. “That, I think, is actually the most exciting thing about this project. Madison has never experienced this.”

“We don't have anything like it,” she added. “In fact, I don't think we have anything like it in the state of Wisconsin.”

Karla Thennes, the executive director of Porchlight Solutions to Homelessness, a nonprofit that has operated temporary housing shelters for the city, said that she would work with the mayor to invite people experiencing homelessness to participate in the planning process.

“We’re going to have a committee of folks with lived experience involved in making decisions on what this place looks like,” Thennes said. “Who’s better to say what’s needed besides the folks who use it? So we’re excited to get all that going.”

The shelter will accommodate 200 to 250 men while offering showers, restrooms and potentially laundry services. The city has allocated $9 million for construction, including $3 million already committed from Dane County, $4 million from the city, and $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, but the final cost won’t be known until the design work is further along.

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O’Keefe admitted the project might face potential pushback from the community, but hoped the largely positive experiences at previous temporary sites would minimize community concerns, adding “we’ve had very few complaints.”

Brenda Konkel, the current board chair of the Homeless Services Consortium, which represents local service providers, welcomed the proposal. 

“We applaud the city’s and county’s commitment to this project and look forward to helping bring about an intentionally built space equipped to serve men experiencing homelessness with the dignity they deserve,” Konkel said.

This announcement is the latest development in a two-year search, described as “exhaustive,” to locate a permanent men's shelter after the pandemic shuttered long-time shelters in downtown church basements that had provided a haven for the homeless for over three decades. These makeshift shelters, such as the one in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, were crowded and wholly unsuited for social distancing.

In March of 2020, the City created temporary shelters for men at the Warner Park Community Center on the North Side. The city also used $2 million in COVID-19 relief funding to construct tiny homes at 3202 Dairy Dr. and began contracting with local hotels such as the Madison Plaza to house the homeless. In December 2020, the city transferred the homeless men from Warner Park to the city’s former Fleet Services Building at 200 N. First St. This was intended as a short-term solution as the First Street facility is slated to become the $16.5 million Madison Public Market with renovations beginning this summer. 

The struggle to find a permanent location site has seen two other location proposals fall through. In fall of 2020, plans to buy a former child care center at 4111 East Towne Blvd. and convert it into an interim men's shelter were dashed when the seller backed out, and, in early 2021, a proposal from Rhodes-Conway and Parisi to spend $2.1 million for a property that formerly held Savers and Gander Mountain store at 2002 Zeier Rd. failed to pass the council. 

In a meeting last October, the Common Council voted again to buy the Zeier Road property, this time with available city funds, which passed 14-6. Rhodes-Conway announced Wednesday that the First Street temporary shelter would move later this year to the Zeier Road property until the permanent shelter at Bartillon Drive is completed. 

The Zeier Road temporary site will be operated by Porchlight Inc., which ran the previous temporary shelters at Warner Park and First Street, and will offer many of the same services. Madison has budgeted $600,000 toward equipping the 31,500-square-foot building with showers, restrooms and other interior modeling, and will be finished by the time renovation begins on the First Street Facility later this summer. Officials said that this site wouldn’t be a full-service facility as the Bartillon Drive shelter would be.

At that same October meeting, the council approved the $855,000 purchase of a fire-ravaged tavern at 1902 Bartillon Dr. for unspecified “options to address homelessness.” Until Wednesday's announcement, it wasn’t clear that Bartillon Drive would be selected and other locations continued to be considered during closed-door meetings with council members, leading some to express consternation they weren’t fully informed of Mayor Rhodes-Conway's decision on Wednesday. 

District 17 Alder Gary Halverson bemoaned the lack of communication in a public post, saying he found out about the new location “at the same time everyone else did, at the press conference.” 

“We don’t operate government in a vacuum,” said Halverson, who represents the neighborhood where the facility would be. “The mayor doesn’t get to sit on the fourth floor and decree something and have it happen. The fact that we weren’t notified that this was coming or even invited to the press conference is unacceptable.” 

Council President Syed Abbas, who represents the district containing the proposed permanent location, made clear that he doesn’t necessarily oppose the placement of the men’s homeless shelter at Bartillon Dr. but took fault with the process and the way it was handled. “By not inviting us, she purposefully cut the community voices out.”

In an interview with News 3 Now, the mayor rejected this narrative, pointing out that the alders had been part of closed-session discussions with the city’s finance committee where Bartillon Drive was proposed as an option. 

“The city council and Alder Abbas, in particular, have already delayed this project for a year based on trying to find the perfect site which, we knew then and we know now, doesn’t exist,” Rhodes-Conway said. Alders hadn’t been invited because she knew the announcement would be sensitive, adding that for a big project like this her actions were appropriate. 

Halverson pushed back against this, saying “the fact that it’s a sensitive issue doesn’t mean we get to do it in darkness, doesn’t mean we get to hide it from the public. What’s going to happen is going to happen, but we need to have this dialogue publicly.” 

In his post he seemed to prefer the existing temporary location on First Street due to its proximity to downtown. “We have heard repeatedly from current and former homeless individuals that this community gravitates to the downtown area where they have had support from many organizations.”

“At the end of the day, there’s no perfect location,” Rhodes-Conway said. “There are only a bunch of imperfect choices and I think we settled on the best compromise.”

During her biweekly briefing Thursday, Rhodes-Conway asserted there would be an “extensive” public input process going forward and maintained that the alders had been and would continue to be in the loop.

“We’re just at the beginning of a very long process, and I find it frankly surprising that alders are acting like they don’t know that there’s a long process ahead of us and there will be plenty of opportunities for them and all of our constituents to weigh in,” Rhodes-Conway said. She added that her office would reach out to the affected districts to organize public meetings about the temporary shelter location at Zeier Road and the permanent location at Bartillon Drive. 

The mayor has introduced a resolution to the Common Council seeking approval for the site with a vote on it planned for next week. If approved, the facility could begin construction in early 2023, with design work consuming the rest of the year.

“It will be transformational,” Rhodes-Conway promised. “This truly represents a pretty big step for our community in really thinking about how do we serve this population and deliver what they need to get stable and get their lives back.”

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